Delivering first aid for mental distress 1

April 17, 2008

I am a dyslexia tutor who mentors students with specific learning difficulties. Increasingly, my colleagues and I are being asked to support students with mental health problems as well as dealing with the increase in anxiety among those who have not been diagnosed with a specific mental condition. We are used to dealing with students with anxiety and have great success in calming them down and in providing strategies to get them back on track - it's our job. Most weeks we will have one or two who will break down during a tutorial, and the way we are affected will depend on the severity of that breakdown.

Although most dyslexia tutors I have spoken to have no objection to mentoring those with emotional difficulties, there are times when we feel ill-equipped. In addition to discussing work-related stress and anxiety, students have told me of problems relating to childhood sexual abuse, alcoholism, mental health problems, family break-up and rape.

When I first entered this profession such matters took me aback, but I soon realised that the students had chosen to confide in me - an act of faith not to be ignored or dealt with lightly.

Students are increasingly under pressure and isolated from the education process around them. They therefore bottle up their problems; it all comes out when they see their tutors. We should expect it.

Some universities have not reacted creatively enough in tackling the increase in emotional problems; others have yet to acknowledge it.

Communications between professions is a key issue. One university I know will not allow its dyslexia tutors to communicate directly with course lecturers or tutors, whatever the reason - what nonsense. I do not wish to be hampered by the university's fear of liability where the wellbeing of a student is concerned.

As Phillip Hodson says when talking of dealing with students' emotional problems ("Adrift in dark waters", 10 April): "Any tutor who doesn't want to do that is in the wrong job. Teaching is a people's game, not a process."

Malcolm Brown, Freelance dyslexia tutor, Vale of Glamorgan.

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